Philosophy Why Adventure?

Is adventure just about unconquerables?

Written by Kirstie Pelling

Derwent Water. There’s adventure ideas and all the gear…
but can you have a ‘proper’ adventure here?

Is adventure just about unconquerables?

What is adventure? That’s the question I was asking myself at the Keswick Mountain Festival this weekend. After listening to Helen Skelton talk to school kids about her big adventures I headed off to the Berghaus tipi to listen to four young explorers compete for a £1000 prize in the Berghaus Live for Adventure competition. And it left me wondering do you have to  conquer the unconquerable or go where no-one has been before to have a ‘proper’ adventure?

I am in a tent with Chris Bonington

I am in a tent with the legendary climber Sir Chris Bonington. It’s probably the only time in my life this is going to happen. But I make the most of the situation by fantasizing about being part of a pioneering Everest 60th anniversary expedition with a dream team comprised of myself, Bonnington, Haddow, Fiennes and Beckham. (If I’m going to have a fantasy expedition, there’s no way I’m leaving David Beckham out of it!)

However the tent we are sharing isn’t going up Everest. It’s staying put, along with an assembled crowd gathered to see which of four adventurers will take home a thousand pound cheque towards their summer expedition in a competition sponsored by Berghaus. The four finalists are required to do a pitch (that’s spoken pitch not tent pitch in case you are wondering) in front of the live audience to try and take the prize.

I am giving a talk later on in this same tent about family adventure. But I won’t be giving a pitch right now. Because although my family entered the competition, we didn’t get selected. And as the young people stand and give their presentation, I realise why. We’d have stood out like a sore thumb.

These four people are reaching for the moon, whereas in comparison we are biking in our back yard.

Do family adventures not count?

Our plan (and our failed competition entry) is to take our kids biking across Iceland this summer. While it may sound tame, it’s no picnic for a family with three children under the age of 11. It’s a challenging destination for touring, a wild country with a reputation for wind, rain and gravelly surfaces that purport to be roads. We will be asking our children to pedal more than 1000 kilometres, whatever the weather, as we explore mountains, glaciers and volcanoes in a landscape far removed from the familiar green Cumbrian fells. They will camp in wild places, cope with whatever is thrown at them, with only the elves to call on when the going gets tough.

Of course families can adventure, but does it really ‘count’?

In some ways this will be nothing new for three children who have biked across Spain, crossed Europe from Amsterdam to Venice, explored the Baltics and pushed over the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Tatras. To them, Iceland is just a lava-covered lump in the sea and their main worry is that there isn’t a MacDonalds any more. But I know it will be a challenge; for me as well as them. I struggle to ride a tandem and trailer on gravel. I tire in a headwind. And unless I have a giant picnic to hand at all times, I’m a little grumpy to be with.

But, as far as ‘real explorers’ are concerned, we won’t be doing anything that hasn’t been done before. So it doesn’t count.

So if it’s not new it doesn’t count?

Iceland has been biked many times. It may not have been biked by many six, nine and eleven year olds, but to ‘proper’ explorers that isn’t the point. ‘Proper’ adventure is about headline grabbing challenges, about doing what has never been done, about pushing bodies and minds to the absolute limit.

And today I can see their point. These young people standing in front of us are doing extraordinary things that we can’t begin to compete with.

Judges discuss the merits of the ‘Live for Adventure’ finalists… how do they weigh them up?

Ben Hudson from Oxford University Caving Club is the youngest ever leader of an Oxford Uni expedition. Over the summer he plans to do the ‘deepest caving traverse involving diving in the world.’ His team will lower themselves down into 1135 metres of darkness of a cave in the Picos de Europa in Northern Spain,. They will go “deeper than the vast majority of cavers ever get in a lifetime,” also exploring a brand new passage that no one has ever gone into before. They have already named this passage Pendulamous. (after a Harry Potter spell?) He brands his team as “The next generation of explorers’ and his mission is clear; to go where no one has gone before, “Caves are the last unexplored places on earth apart from the very deep ocean. We don’t know what we will find. But we hope to find something.”

The next competitor, Jason King is aiming higher in geographical terms . He will celebrate the variety of climbing in Europe with a 3 peaks challenge, trying out three different styles of climbing (aid, traditional alpine rock, and alpine) on Monte Brento, Piz Badile, and Monte Cervino. For him adventure is unpredictability, “The way I like to do mountaineering is to go on the journey, let it unfold and not really know the way back.”

Finalists Polly Harmer and Matt Burdekin after making their pitch

“Has anyone ever wondered what it would be like to climb a mountain never climbed before?” says the third finalist Polly Harmer. “Well, we wondered, dreamed and had a chat,” chips in her climbing partner Matt Burdekin, “and then we thought it’s what we’d like to do this summer.” The two young climbers are heading out to South West Kurdistan, to the north face of Muz-Tok, which they describe as an unclimbed ‘Toblerone bar.’ These guys are masters of understatement and you get the sense they’d be a fun pair to adventure with, “It’s quite big and it’s quite scary so you might find us kipping out here or hanging out there over the four days it’ll take to climb it,” says Polly. For Matt, any expedition is a worthy expedition, “I love adventure, whether it’s nicking my housemate’s canoe, or climbing anywhere I can get to in the world.”

The final competitor is the appropriately named George Cave, who takes the prize. Together with three others, he will put the £1000 towards an expedition to the Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia. His adventure is extreme, “We have got the chance to climb one of the last inaccessible mountains on the planet, so it’s not to be missed.” But his entry into the Berghaus competition is about more than this particular journey, “It’s not about the route, it’s about the continued development of an exciting (and excitable!) set of youths. We believe people are only limited by their sense of adventure.”

The winners get their prize

Not ‘proper’ adventurers but surely spirit matters more?

After the prizes have been given out, I ask George how old he is.

“That’s the wierdest chat up line I ever heard.” says a man sitting next to me.

But it’s relevant to my musings. George is 23. He is twelve years older than my eldest child. And Ben Hudson is 20. As he pointed out, they are the next generation of explorers. My children’s generation have a little more time before they need to make their mark on the world. It’s fine for my children to be biking in Iceland with their parents; at this stage they don’t need to be climbing a mountain that’s never been climbed. Family adventure may not be highly valued in the industry, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. The building blocks of a house start in the foundations after all. I bet a large proportion of these twenty something people got out into the outdoors with their parents.

I congratulate George on winning the prize. Was he surprised? “When I heard the others speak, I thought we’d lost,” he laughs. “I would have given them money.” I would too.

The competition is over and the crowd disperses. Now there is just me and Sir Chris Bonnington on the doorstep of the tent. I ask if I can snatch a picture in the sunshine and he obliges.

Sir Chris Bonington at the Keswick Mountain Festival

Now I am one step closer to my Everest dream team fantasy. I may not have £1000. But I have crampons. I have an adventurous spirit. I just need a phone number for David Beckham.

Do you think family adventures ‘count’? Do you need to be ‘the first’ to be a ‘proper’ adventurer? Does personal survival have to be at risk to have a real adventure?

This post is part of our Family Adventure Capital Season. We’re exploring different ways families can adventure together in and around Cumbria, sharing ideas and inspiration to encourage families to get out, get active and adventure together.

Got some ideas for things we should try? Let us know.

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About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • Hi Kirstie,

    I love our big adventurers – they are a great inspiration for the rest of us. But we do not have to be like them exactly, pushing the boundaries of adventure as far as they do, to adventure ourselves. I like this definition: adventure is a way of doing, not something that you do. Family adventures definitely count – how else will our children grow to meet life head on?

  • Hi Kirstie, I’m from Italy and I have just found your blog!
    It is great!
    I agree with Amy, family adventures count!
    (Sorry for my poor English!)
    Adventure is a state of mind!

  • So that’s why you wanted my age! Great write-up, I’m glad you were jotting down details because I wanted to grab the names of the other groups at the time but was a little too nervous to be worrying about things like that.

    I completely agree with you in many ways though. The competition was about the sort of adventures that grab headlines. But I’m sure for all competitors, and definitely for us, you were just seeing a small snapshot of our life at a culmination of years of previous fun times. We are fortunate enough to have reached the point where we feel confident enough to go out and explore somewhere truly incredible. But I had just as much fun today discovering and then trying to boulder up a small brick viaduct over the canal after work. Anyone who sees location, scale or cost as a barrier to having adventures probably doesn’t know quite how to have them properly, yet 🙂


    • Hi George, I’m glad you found your way to this and took the time to comment. Have you spent the money yet? I really admired you all for your spirit, ambition, skills, vision and commitment to making it happen. In expeditions like yours you really do put your life on the line whereas we don’t, except when cycling in Polish traffic!

    • Not yet…haven’t had a chance to try and cash that giant cheque in a bank! Thanks, but at the end of the day, its just fun isn’t it? I don’t think we’d be putting in anywhere near as much effort if it wasn’t!

      Cycling in Bristol is hard enough sometimes…

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